IT IS NOT A JOB FOR THE FAINT OF HEART: THE WOMAN WHO marries Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito, 32, must be savvy enough to deal with palace politics, resilient enough to put up with unique indignities (including losing her right to vote) and self-effacing enough to walk several demure steps behind her mate. Her public utterances must be approved by a notably humorless body of royal advisers, and her private life must be played out amid elaborate ritual in the suffocatingly secluded splendor of Tokyo's Imperial Palace compound.

Fortunately, 29-year-old Masako Owada, who has sent Japan into a celebratory frenzy by accepting the Prince's proposal, may just be tough enough for the job. The daughter of Hisashi Owada, Japan's Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Owada has lived in the U.S., England and Russia and was educated at Harvard and Oxford. Fluent in four languages, she is a Foreign Ministry diplomat who knows the value of compromise.

"She's dignified and self-assured, and she gets along with everybody," says Glendale, Calif., dentist Marilyn Garabedian, a friend from their days at Belmont (Mass.) High School, which Owada attended for two years while her father taught at Harvard. "She has all the qualities to be an empress."

Including, it seems, the ability to galvanize her subjects. On Jan. 6, when word of the betrothal prompted the lifting of the Japanese media's self-imposed news blackout on the Prince's search, the press pounced on the story and besieged the affluent Tokyo neighborhood where Owada (who has avoided the limelight) lives with her parents. TV networks—some of which decorated their studios with wedding cakes—issued bridal bulletins, and special-edition newspapers were passed out gratis.

Within days, citizens of a country mired in a demoralizing economic slump hit the stores to register their optimism. Even hardheaded executives forecast soaring sales of everything from kimonos to high-definition TVs (the better to watch the elaborate nuptials expected this summer). By one estimate, the engagement may spark as much as $26 billion in spending among jubilant Japanese.

Happiest of all, perhaps, was the prospective bridegroom—a grandson of the late Emperor Hirohito and the future occupant of the 1,700-year-old Chrysanthemum Throne. A serious sort who studied water transportation systems at Oxford and plays the viola, Naruhito began his arduous search several years ago, aided by a 1,100-member committee. He reportedly considered 70 candidates who met the rigid royal requirements—upper-class virgins of the Shinto or Buddhist faiths who were shorter than the 5'4" prince (Owada is almost precisely the same height). Spurned by at least two prospective brides who rejected his offer, he found Masako reluctant as well.

The two first met at a Tokyo reception in 1986 and, after several subsequent, well-chaperoned encounters, remained apart for five years. Last spring a palace go-between persuaded Masako (by then based in Tokyo) to meet the Prince for tea. She rejected his first proposal; only on Dec. 19, after an onslaught of calls during which Naruhito reportedly argued that being a princess would be just "another form of diplomacy," did she accept.

As Diana Spencer and Sarah Ferguson learned, marrying a prince doesn't always mean living happily ever after. Those who know her, however, predict that Masako will do just fine—even if she does have to quit her job and learn the art of calligraphy. "She has a lot of depth," says Lillian Katz, a Belmont High teacher who kept in touch with her for several years. "I think she probably views this as an opportunity to accomplish quite a bit, even if she has to make some sacrifices."

MICHELLE GREEN
JENNIFER FREY in Tokyo and SUE AVERY BROWN in Boston

  • Contributors:
  • Jennifer Frey,
  • Sue Avery Brown.